This isn’t a book that I’ve seen around or reviewed often. In fact, I had to request my library purchase it since they didn’t already have a copy when I went looking to borrow it. So, I had to wait for it to be bought and delivered before, excitingly, being the first person to borrow it. I’m glad I was able to encourage this purchase, but also definitely wish that more people knew of it and were looking to read it. Anyways, I cannot remember where I first heard of it or what prompted me to add it to my TBR, but here we are: I’ve finally had the chance to read it.
“Let these women dance among your days and with your nights. Dream better lives.”
This collection of poetry is structured around a recognition of the history of violence, incarceration, assassination, injustice and political/legal discrimination against Black women in America. Combining short histories of their lives/work with poems that honor and mourn their experiences, as well as black and white photographs to give a visual edge to the impact, this is a chronicle of the bondage of Black woman, their experiences of confinement (mental, physical, emotional, intellectual, etc.) in the US from slavery to Reconstruction to Jim Crow to today’s mass incarceration and police brutality.
I’ve never read or had a reading experience like this before and it was an arduous one. And I mean that in a very specific way. It is, in fact, a very fast read. Short exposition about each highlighted woman followed by a poem or, in some cases, a series of poems that recognized and reflected on their story. I found that flipping quickly through the pages was almost too easy. So, I started taking a break after each piece to do some of my own research, to complement the mini bios provided by Hill (especially for those women I had not heard of before…about ¾ of the names mentioned, to be honest), and then rereading the poems again afterwards. This was an excellent decision. The extra details I picked up about their lives and trials from my own research gave considerable extra context to Hill’s poems and allowed me to get so much more from each one. The voice Hill gives these women and their experiences is just spectacular, and often some of the references were so subtle that I only got them after reading more on my own. I assume that was, in part, purposeful…to encourage the reader to look more into these inspirational and/or underknown lives and situations. And I’m sure even then I still missed some things. Anyways, back to the arduous descriptor. When I say this was an arduous read, I mean in an emotionally taxing way. Each of these women fought against their respective types of confinement with the only weapons they had. It was hard to read about how little autonomy/power they were “allowed,” and what lengths they had to go to in order to take what little they could and, then, the myriad way they were further silenced afterwards. When there is no reasonable way to escape, the less “reasonable” options must be taken. So yes, the depth of feeling, the impact, of each piece/section hits heavy, like a repeated sledgehammer to the mind and gut.
A few of the women/poems that were extra affecting or really stuck out to me. The first is the maths, and translation of those maths, poem series that made up Ide B. Wells’ section. It was potentially the most creative, unique and stylistic communication of a concept of worth and cost that I’ve ever read. I don’t even know how to truly describe it, other than to say this collection is worth picking up just for that section. I was also particularly moved and disturbed by the poems for Sandra Bland and Gynnya McMillen, as well as the disparate experiences of women in historic insane asylums based on skin color (this was particularly gut-wrenching because it’s not like they were safe, protective spaces for women of any kind, so to consider how much worse things were for Black women is…a lot). The short essay/monologue “Patriot and Prisoner,” in which Hill captures the conflicting spirits of her experiences both as a USAF service member and the mother of a Black son changed irrevocably by the trauma of simply living as Black man in America, was searing and harsh and unflinching and conveyed a profound strength of confusion and feeling. Finally, the series of poems for Assata Shakur were, in a bit of a change from some of the others, more inspiring in their emotionality – there was fire and passion in each of those that matched so beautifully with her legacy, especially, at least for me, the first one “Revolution: Assata in 1956.”
Hill situates herself, as the author, in a historical and personal context throughout this collection. The way it is structured and presented is educational, evocative and completely unique. Although there were some poems that I know I didn’t fully grasp or understand, the overall impact of this collection, the breathtakingness of it (as in, I was in a breathless state while reading much of it), the movement and power and message of these pages as they play witness to a violent, centuries-long struggle is brilliant. I had never heard of, or even considered the possibility of, a poet historian before picking this up and you can count me a believer of the combo after finishing this collection.